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  • Self-Coups: Peru, Guatemala, and Russia
  • Maxwell A. Cameron (bio)

In April 1992, Peru’s President Alberto Fujimori dissolved Congress, temporarily suspended the 1979 Constitution, and ruled his country by decree until November 1992, when a “Democratic Constituent Congress” was elected to draft a new constitution. A popular referendum ratified this document in October 1993, and Fujimori won reelection as president in 1995. For some, this closed an unfortunate, but perhaps necessary, episode in Peruvian politics. 1 Fujimori claimed that his intention was not to destroy democracy, but to improve it by making it more direct, authentic, and, above all, efficient. The period after April 1992, however, saw power becoming dangerously concentrated in the hands of the president, the armed forces, and the National Intelligence Service (SIN). The three together turned the executive branch into a parallel legislator, a judge of judges, and a force above the law.

An autogolpe (“self-coup”) occurs when a president closes the courts and the legislature, suspends the constitution, and rules by decree until a referendum and new legislative elections are held to approve broader executive powers. For those who define democracy (or, more precisely, polyarchy) in terms of free and fair elections for the executive and the legislature, autogolpes represent a temporary departure from democratic rule. 2 Yet if democracy is defined as a regime in which those in power must provide public reasons for their actions and defend them against criticism, 3 then autogolpes leave a more lasting and problematic legacy.

Presidents implement autogolpes in order to pursue policies that would be impeded by a vigorous legislature, independent courts, and watchful citizens. Autogolpes dangerously weaken mechanisms of horizontal [End Page 125] accountability. 4 It is easier for an executive insulated from public scrutiny to violate Kant’s publicity principle, whereby a policy is unjust “if making it public would defeat its purpose.” 5

Autogolpes threaten the deliberative quality of democracy by broadening the scope for executive abuses of power and destabilizing the self-correcting mechanisms that inhere in a functioning system of checks and balances. Autogolpes create governments enshrouded in secrecy, unaccountable to the public, and impervious to criticism. The opportunity to control the legislature and judiciary undermines the rule of law. When the executive politicizes the judiciary, men replace laws; when it dominates the legislature, cheap talk replaces deliberation.

Vibrant, public legislative debate and an independent judiciary are critical to executive accountability and the rule of law, the twin foundations on which the constitutional democratic state rests. The Peruvian experience vividly demonstrates that sovereign assemblies and independent courts are the best defenses democracy has against the clever but amoral stratagems of Machiavellian politicians.

The regime in Peru, like its counterparts in many “Third Wave” democracies, is an ambiguous and volatile hybrid. One face of the regime is a popular, efficacious, twice-elected president who has won a referendum on constitutional reform and, until recently, sustained a high level of popularity. The other face is a secretive and corrupt government-within-the-government that operates above the law and refuses accountability for its actions. The ambiguity of the president’s position derives from executive complicity in illegalities and injustices; compelled to hide behind a veil of secrecy, yet dependent on public approval, the president is trapped between private blackmail and public scandal.

Peru contrasts with Guatemala, which in the spring of 1993 underwent a strikingly similar autogolpe attempt by President Jorge Serrano Elías. Yet there, for reasons explored below, events took a different turn, unexpectedly strengthening democracy and the rule of law. Boris Yeltsin’s crackdown on Russia’s parliament in the fall of 1993 was similar in many respects to Peru’s autogolpe of 18 months before. The key common feature was the rise of unaccountable executive power seeking to subordinate the legislative and judicial branches and shield itself from public scrutiny. Comparison of these cases strengthens the claim that autogolpes harm the deliberative quality of democracy.

The Peruvian Autogolpe

After a decade of counterinsurgency war following Peru’s 1980 transition from military rule, the consensus in the military was that the civilian presidents of the 1980s had failed to press home the fight against the guerrillas and terrorists of...

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pp. 125-139
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